2004.12.27 Urumqi, China

Ice Sculpture in
Peoples' Square, Urumqi

The Urumqi winter I've been so apprehensive about has arrived. Growing up in a city that didn't guarantee annual snowfall made me fear what temperatures thirty degrees below zero would feel like. I've found it's actually not that bad.

Most of my experience with snow has been of the slushy, wet variety. Perhaps being in the desert makes for a tolerable "dry cold". Or maybe it's just that once everything has frozen solid in any location the unpleasantness of trudging through sludgy muck is no longer a factor.

As the temperature has dropped I've begun to bundle up. I finally took my hands out of my pockets and added a pair of gloves to my wardrobe the other day. It's been necessary to wear a cap for the past month or so. I'm additionally wearing another purchase I'm quite happy with: a tremendous coat that keeps me warm, even outside in the frigid temperatures. It's a standard issue People's Liberation Army overcoat in military green. It must be lined with the skin and wool of at least one sheep. Faux brass buttons emblazoned with the characters "八一" bring the two sides together, a few extra are sewn on just for decoration. A huge brown fur collar flips up around my neck keeping that area so warm I've stopped wearing my scarf.

The coat, of course, looks utterly ridiculous--especially so with the cap I wear, perhaps modeled after those worn on The Fat Albert Show. I don't care: I'm into being warm.

Now that I'm no longer afraid of the cold, I have only one fear: slipping on the ice. I've already done it once, landing squarely on my shoulder. It still smarts and it's difficult to move my arm. I don't think I've injured anything permanently, but don't want to push my luck in a repeat occurrence.

If slipping and falling weren't such a possibility it would be amusing to watch the way snow is cleared in China today. Large gangs of workers clear the roads and sidewalks by hand, using the most primitive of implements. Short, inadequate shovels are common though I've seen even worse tools in action including hatchets, spades, and hoes. Brooms are another frequent choice, invariably a long bundle of sticks à la Disney's take on the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Most of the crews are clearly recent migrants from China's poorer provinces though Xinjiang University students get shanghaied into clearing the areas around the campus. This makes for an even more ridiculous sight as not even half of them have an implement in hand. Those that aren't standing around empty-handed have no organization whatsoever, chipping and picking about in random direction. I've seen over one-hundred students standing out in the cold at one time with perhaps three guys doing any actual work. I suppose mine is not to question, just to be glad that they don't conscript the foreign students as well.

I've been surprised how the Christmas season passed without my ever feeling the "Christmas spirit". I mistakenly thought that it was my associations with how the holiday is celebrated today in America that brought about that particular emotion. Wouldn't having the same decor, music, flashing lights, and wreaths be sufficient? Evidently not: China has whole-heartedly adopted all of the trappings of the U.S.. Grandma Got Run-Over by a Reindeer can be heard outside of Xinjiang McDonald's clone Best Food. English messages of Season's Greetings! and Merry Christmas are hanging all over town along with renderings of holly, pine cones, trees, and gifts wrapped with colorful bows. Skinny Chinese men stand around outside in Kris Kringle suits. The all-female cashier crew at Carrefour are forced into similar regalia, coupled with long, white, fake plaits hanging from inside red-and-white stocking caps.

I even attended an enjoyable party on Christmas Eve, replete with mulled wine and a gift exchange. Christmas Day found me socializing with various groups of friends, both local and fellow westerners. More snow than I've seen in my life should have brought about the sense that Christmas has arrived, but it just never came. The other Christmases I've spent outside of the U.S. (in Kathmandu, Paris, and Tokyo) also didn't feel quite the same, though I've got to say France's outdoor creches with live barnyard animals are hard to top. During those other Christmases abroad I chalked up the different vibe to unfamiliar decor and music, but that can't be it here--everything has been lifted from the U.S. to a "T". Trite and clichéd as this will sound, I've realized that it must be the time spent with family that defines Christmas.

新年快乐 and Bon Année.